Committee: Start search for next park superintendent

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January 18, 2010 // UPDATED 9:25 am - January 21, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes

An ad hoc group of commissioners voted 3–1 Wednesday to recommend opening up an international search for candidates. Current Superintendent Jon Gurban’s contract is up at the end of June.

The search for the next Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board superintendent could begin as early as next month.

In a turn-around from a near-decision by the last Park Board, a committee tasked with deciding the future of Superintendent Jon Gurban on Wednesday voted to go “in a different direction,” as new Commissioner Anita Tabb put it. The ad hoc group voted 3–1 to recommend beginning an immediate international search for candidates.

The full board will take up the issue on Feb. 17.

Gurban was hired in 2003 under a cloud of controversy, after he neither applied for nor screened for the job. He has since taken hits on a number of issues, primarily over transparency and communication concerns. But he also has won approval from many colleagues and commissioners for his work on such projects as the park system’s Comprehensive Plan. A 2008 evaluation of Gurban’s job performance showed a majority of the last Park Board found he met or exceeded expectations, and in November, the board seemed poised to offer him a one-year contract extension, through June 2011.

But they didn’t, instead opting to leave the issue to the new board. And, based on comments made during last fall’s campaign season, there appears to now exist a majority that will support opening up a search. Two new commissioners, Southwest’s Brad Bourn and Tabb, sat on Wednesday’s committee, and both voted to move on.

Bourn was hesitant to say Gurban wouldn’t be the best person for the job, noting that he would be supportive of the superintendent reapplying. But Tabb was more vocal, saying she heard complaints about Gurban throughout her campaign in the fall. She said she felt she was elected to make a change.

Only Commissioner Carol Kummer voted against opening up a search. For one, she said, the economic climate isn’t exactly conducive to a search’s price tag. (The last search cost more than $30,000.)

She also worried about timing. The Park Board this fall will host the 2010 National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition, a major national parks conference.

“The universe is sort of before us,” Kummer said, “but we don’t want to look fickle.”

Tabb disagreed. There never is a good time to make a decision about leadership, and “putting it off will only lengthen the process,” she said.

Young at first appeared to lean in Kummer’s direction because of the timing factor. But when she was asked to vote on opening up a search, she sided with Bourn and Tabb. It took her several moments of silence to cast her vote, though, and when she did, tears welled up in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said afterward. “I’m very emotionally upset.”

Tabb wanted to go one step further, bringing forward a motion to not extend Gurban’s contract beyond its June end date, ensuring he would be gone by July. But she was met with immediate opposition, largely because a search could last well beyond June. Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who chaired the committee, said it would be more appropriate to consider negotiating a short-term extension to keep Gurban through at least the duration of the search.

Tabb was outvoted 2–1 by Kummer and Young. Bourn abstained, although he called Tabb’s motion “premature.”

The committee’s actions and discussions caused a stir in the audience, which was filled with top Park Board staff, including Gurban himself. Several staff members shook heads, while others looked on with gaping mouths. After the committee’s vote for a search, Gurban walked out immediately, not waiting to hear about the fate of his contract.

If Gurban were ultimately not retained, it would be Minneapolis’ second high-profile superintendent change this year. On Tuesday, the city school board began a process to hire current Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson as the successor to outgoing Superintendent Bill Green. Green will leave the position at the end of the 2009–10 school year.